As the subheading “Rome, 15—” explains, the setting is sixteenth century Rome, Italy. A Catholic bishop lies on his bed, near death. He has summoned his nephews or sons—he is not always sure which—to impart his instructions for his burial in his present church, Saint Praxed’s.
The Bishop’s primary consideration is that his tomb must outshine the tomb of his old rival, Gandolf, presumably his predecessor as bishop, now dead and buried inside the church, as was customary for high-ranking church leaders. The speaker cherishes the idea that old Gandolf always envied him, especially for his beautiful mistress. The Bishop wants Gandolf to envy his superior tomb as well and plans to enjoy this envy throughout eternity.
The monologue opens with a garbled quote from Ecclesiastes about the vanity of worldly interests. Yet the rest of his long speech reveals him as vain, greedy, and hypocritical, interested only in possessions, pleasures, and besting his rivals. On occasion the Bishop interrupts his instructions about his tomb to utter pious phrases that a bishop would be expected to say, but he himself has not followed these precepts.
Gandolf has already beaten the Bishop to the choice location for his vault, much to the Bishop’s annoyance, but he consoles himself that his own spot is satisfactory and that his vault will be much more elaborate. He knows exactly what he wants for every detail. It should be made of the best antique black basalt, with nine peach-blossom-colored marble columns around it, arranged similar to the way the listeners are standing around his bed. When his former church had burned, the Bishop whispers, he had taken from it a huge lapis lazuli gemstone, and now he wants them to dig it up from the vineyard where he had hidden it and use it to adorn the effigy of himself atop his vault. Around the vault he wants a continuous band of bronze sculpture depicting various scenes, including Christ giving the Sermon on the Mount, Moses with the Ten Commandments, and—unsuitable for the Christian theme but totally suitable as a reflection of the Bishop’s character—a scene depicting pagan Greek Pans and Nymphs, including one Pan about to “twitch the Nymph’s last garment off.” Even his epitaph on the vault must be “choice Latin” from Tully (the classical writer Marcus Tullius Cicero); it should clearly outdo Gandolf’s epitaph from the less notable Ulpian.
The Bishop hears the young men talking and turns to his son Anselm as though he were the only one he might hope to trust. He worries that they will take his riches for themselves rather than use them for his tomb. He alternately bribes and threatens. He tells them he can pray to Saint Praxed to send them horses and rare old manuscripts and mistresses. If they disobey his wishes, however, he will disinherit them and leave his villas to the Pope instead.
The Bishop becomes increasingly confused as death approaches. He is unable even to remember which author he wanted quoted for his epitaph. As the nephews/sons start to leave, he tells them to leave him in his church, where Gandolf still envies him.
Robert Browning shows his mastery of the dramatic monologue form in this poem. Browning had an early interest in playwriting, and the poem is a compressed play with one speaking role, that of the Bishop. The minor characters, the nephews/sons, move together and function almost as a Greek chorus, with only Anselm named. The reader is the audience. Dramatic irony enables the audience to know more than...
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the speaker intends to reveal, and as the Bishop unmasks himself he is inadvertently didactic, instructing the audience in the folly of worldly corruption. Stage directions and props are indicated through the Bishop’s remarks about the positioning of the other characters and the lighted candles.
The basic verse pattern of the poem is unrhymed iambic pentameter (blank verse); the central device is irony, created by clusters of images, shifts in tone, and the sense of movement throughout the poem. The poem immediately establishes the scene, with the central character calling reluctant listeners around his deathbed. The other characters (nephew was often a euphemism for a priest’s son) seem as preoccupied with selfish interests as does the Bishop. He calls them closer as he whispers his theft of the lapis lazuli from the burned church (he may even have started the conflagration), and they listen as he tells where the treasure is hidden. Soon he hears them whispering among themselves and exclaims, “Ye mark me not!”
The sense of physical movement throughout the poem is supported by tone shifts. The Bishop gloatingly recalls his worldly triumphs and fondly details his lavish tomb. His description of it, however, increasingly becomes a desperate need to communicate both the instructions and the urgency of carrying out his orders.
As the candles burn down, the Bishop’s words show that his mind is drifting into delirium. He seems almost to be speaking to himself as he says, “strange thoughts/ Grow, with a certain humming in my ears.” He mutters a biblical reference about personal evil but immediately stops that thought with a reminder that he wants the lapis. When he has a horrible vision of the body in a coarse, crumbling gritstone box, whose sides “sweat/ As if the corpse they keep were oozing through,” he can no longer console himself with thoughts of lapis; the listeners are walking away. The Bishop asks them to arrange the candles in a row so that he can “watch at leisure” if old Gandolf leers at him in envy of his fair mistress.
The central image of the poem is the tomb, the Bishop’s obsession, which merges with his revelation of character. Numerous references to stone—marble, travertine, onion-stone, jasper, and pure basalt—rich, rare, hard, and flawless, mingle with images of sensuality, as in the “great smooth marbly limbs” of mistresses or his sacrilegious metaphor that the lapis lazuli is “Blue as a vein o’er the Madonna’s breast.” Other clusters of images indicate his thorough familiarity with Renaissance art and his thorough immorality. Every word in the poem contributes to the reader’s understanding of the total drama.